Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Preservation of Error, Sandoval, and T.O.D. Motions

In People v Hawkins (2008 NY Slip Op 09254 [11/25/08]) the Court of Appeals provided counsel with further guidance as to what is required to preserve errors for review as a matter of law. Unfortunately, as detailed below, the Court's decision appears to raise as many questions as it answers.

The statutory requirements of preservation of error are set forth in Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) 470.05[2], which provides in relevant part:

For purposes of appeal, a question of law with respect to a ruling or instruction of a criminal court during a trial or proceeding is presented when . . . a party who without success has either expressly or impliedly sought or requested a particular ruling or instruction, is deemed to have thereby protested the court's ultimate disposition of the matter or failure to rule or instruct accordingly sufficiently to raise a question of law with respect to such disposition or failure regardless of whether any actual protest thereto was registered.

CPL 470.05 was changed to its current form to do away with overly technical preservation requirements that served to bar appellate courts from hearing substantive issues. (See Practice Commentary to CPL 470.05 [1994 Main Volume] ["The last sentence, moreover, dispenses with the necessity of any specific protest where a ruling or instruction is sought and not given as requested. In short, a defendant who, for example, fruitlessly requests the court to instruct the jury to disregard a certain item of evidence has, by the very request, adequately raised a question of law for appeals purposes regardless of whether he subsequently registers an exception or other protest to the court's failure to give the instruction."].)

Thus, one might reasonably have thought that there is no longer a preservation requirement in New York law that an attorney take exception upon the denial of requested relief. One would be wrong. Despite counsel having requested in pre-trial motions that the People be prohibited from cross-examining defendant regarding prior convictions and bad acts, the Court of Appeals ruled in Hawkins that "defendant's Sandoval objection is unpreserved, as defendant made no objection to the court's ruling." This ruling permitted the People to cross-examine Mr. Hawkins with respect to the existence, but not the underlying facts, of two of his four prior burglary convictions. Counsel did not take exception to this ruling which was different than the relief he had requested.

The Hawkins Court neither cited CPL 470.05 nor explained how to reconcile this holding with that statute. It is now clear than an exception is required for preservation for review of a so-called Sandoval compromise ruling, even when that was not the relief requested by counsel.

The Sandoval ruling was not the primary preservation issue before the Court in Hawkins. Rather as previously discussed here the issues that divided the Fourth Department in Hawkins was what language is required, pursuant to People v Gray (86 NY2d 10), in a T.O.D. motion to raise and preserve a claim that the People's proof was legally insufficient.

The Court held that when Hawkins' counsel objected that the People "failed to prove that Mr. Hawkins acted with Depraved Indifference Murder,"
that motion did little more than argue that the People failed to prove the essential elements of depraved indifference murder. The objection could have been directed at either the reckless mens rea element, or at the objective circumstances evincing a wanton, depraved indifference to human life, and did not alert the trial court to the argument now being advanced: that defendant acted intentionally, not recklessly, in killing the victim. Defendant did not preserve that legal question for our review.

If the proof was legally insufficient and Gray clearly requires more than what was done, was counsel ineffective for not preserving the issue? Clearly there could be no tactical nor strategic reason for such failure.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SORA Risk Assessment Guidelines Strictly Construed

In People v Aldrich (2008 NY Slip Op 08916 [4th Dept 11/14/08])the Court lowered a defendant;s risk level upon concluding that the lower court had incorrectly assessed 30 points. First, the Court held "that the court erred in assessing 25 points for attempted sexual intercourse because there was no evidence of actual sexual intercourse between defendant and the victim as required to assess points under the category of 'Sexual contact with victim.'" Additionally, it was error for the court to assess 5 points under the category of "Release with supervision" where the defendant was released into the community under the supervision of "a probation or parole officer who oversees a sex offender caseload or who otherwise specializes in the management of such offenders" should not be assessed any points for release under supervision.

When Can A One On One Killing Support A Depraved Indifference Murder Conviction?

The Court of Appeals has held that "[a] defendant may be convicted of depraved indifference murder when but a single person is endangered in only a few rare circumstances" (People v Suarez, 6 NY3d 202, 212. But what those circumstances areremains unclear.

In People v Lagasse (2008 NY Slip Op 08799 [4th Dept 11/14/08]) the Court held that the evidence was legally insufficient to prove depraved indifference murder in a case involving a one on one beating where the decedent was left beaten, but alive and then died. As explained below, the Court found that the facts were consistent with intentional conduct, and, thus, inconsistent with depraved murder.

The forensic pathologist testified that the 61-year-old victim died from a subdural hematoma and brain injuries caused by blunt-force trauma that was consistent with being struck by fists. Defendant testified at trial that he had punched the victim in the head several times following an argument over the victim's sexual abuse of defendant 30 years earlier, but defendant further testified that, by the time he left the victim's house, he and the victim had reconciled and the victim was "fine." The evidence presented by the People at trial establishes that a struggle had occurred, there were blood spatters in the bathroom and a significant pool of blood on the kitchen floor, and the police found the victim's body face down in a small pool of blood on the living room floor, between the couch and a coffee table. We conclude that the evidence does not support the conclusion that the victim's death was caused by abandoning a helpless and vulnerable individual in circumstances in which he or she is likely to die (citations omitted), nor was there evidence of "torture or a brutal, prolonged . . . course of conduct against a particularly vulnerable victim" (citations omitted). "Whether he intended to kill [the victim] or merely to cause [him] serious injury——and either of these findings, supported by sufficient evidence, might have been properly made by the jury——defendant's actions in no way reflected a depraved indifference to [the victim's] fate" (People v Suarez, 6 NY3d at 216).

On the same day, in People v Jeffries (2008 NY Slip Op 08799 [4th Dept 11/14/08]) a different panel of the Fourth Department (with two of the same judges) held that proof that a defendant lifted a baby and threw her head first into the floor of the porch, causing severe head injuries that resulted in the child's death is legally sufficient to support the conviction for depraved murder. The Court rejected Jeffries' argument that the evidence establishes his manifest intent to kill or to cause serious physical injury and thus fails to establish the culpable mental state for depraved indifference murder. "Rather, the evidence establishes that defendant acted in a fit of rage directed at the child's mother, and the jury could have reasonably inferred that, when he threw the child, 'defendant consciously disregarded the risk of serious injury or death to the child, i.e., that he acted recklessly' (People v Jamison, 45 AD3d 1438, 1439, lv denied 10 NY3d 766)".

Thus the Court held that throwing a baby to the ground, causing massive and fatal injuries, is consistent with reckless conduct, but beating an adult and leaving him injured and bleeding is not.

When Is a Win Not a Win?

In People v Backus (2008 NY Slip Op 08772 [4th Dept 11/14/2008)] the defendant won on his claim that the consecutive sentence imposed was illegal. However, a panel of the Fourth Department divided 3-2 as to the appropriate remedy, with the majority holding that on remitter of the matter to County Court to resentence defendant the court should "entertain a motion by the People, should the People be so disposed, to vacate the plea and set aside the conviction in its entirety." Not so good for Mr. Backus.

Specifically, Backus appealed from a judgment convicting him, upon his plea of guilty, of two counts of vehicular assault in the second degree (Penal Law § 120.03 [1]) and one count of driving while intoxicated (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1192 [3]), and sentencing him to two one-year concurrent definite terms for vehicular assault, and a one-year definite term for driving while intoxicated, to be served consecutively. Since the offense of driving while intoxicated is a material element of the offense of vehicular assault in the second degree and thus the sentence was illegal insofar as County Court imposed consecutive sentences. As set forth below the two dissenting Justices would have corrected the illegality by ordering the sentences to run concurrently:

As noted by the majority, the sentence in this case was imposed pursuant to a plea agreement, but we have in the past modified a judgment on the ground that the bargained-for sentence was illegal because consecutive sentences were not permissible and have directed that the sentences run concurrently (see People v Taylor, 197 AD2d 858). There is no sentence that the court could impose here that would result in the bargained-for sentence, i.e., two one-year definite terms of imprisonment. Defendant has already served a one-year definite term and, "when the court has imposed a sentence of imprisonment and such sentence is in accordance with law, such sentence may not be changed, suspended or interrupted once the term or period of the sentence has commenced" (CPL 430.10). Although it is implicit in CPL 430.10 that a court has the power to correct an illegal sentence even if the defendant has begun serving it, a court may not alter a sentence that "is in accordance with law" once it is being served (id.; see People v Carpenter, 19 AD3d 730, 732, lv denied 5 NY3d 804). In our view, the illegality of the sentence was in directing the one-year definite sentence for driving while intoxicated to run consecutively to the one-year concurrent definite sentences for vehicular assault (see People v Davis, 12 AD3d 237, 238). That defect is corrected by directing that the sentences run concurrently (see id.).

Disclosure After Two Years Is Not A Prompt Outcry

What constitutes a prompt outcry permitting the admission of hearsayis a relative concept dependent on the facts. In People v Workman (2008 NY Slip Op 08801 [4th Dept 11/18/08]) the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting in evidence the testimony of the boyfriend of the victim concerning her disclosure of the sexual abuse two years after the last incident of abuse. The court admitted the testimony as a prompt outcry, inasmuch as "evidence that a victim of sexual assault promptly complained about the incident is admissible to corroborate the allegation that an assault took place" (People v McDaniel, 81 NY2d 10, 16). The Court held that
the victim's disclosure in this case was not prompt. As noted, the victim made the disclosure two years after the last incident of abuse, and the record establishes that she had been living away from defendant for a period of time before making the disclosure and had not received any threats that prevented her from disclosing the abuse.

This erroneous admission was held to be harmless because his testimony mirrored evidence [that was] disclosed to the jury without objection.

On a brighter note for Mr. Workman, the Court, sua sponte, as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice, concluded that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the conviction of course of sexual conduct against a child in the first degree under Penal Law § 130.75 (1) (a). That Penal Law section requires evidence that, over at least a three-month period, defendant engaged "in two or more acts of sexual conduct, which includes at least one act of sexual intercourse, oral sexual conduct, anal sexual conduct or aggravated sexual contact, with a child [*2]less than eleven years old . . . ." The Court explained that there was no evidence that defendant engaged in any act other than forcible touching before the victim was 11 years old and that the conviction on that count, thus, must be reversed.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Vindictiveness In Sentencing After Retrial

In People v Young(94 NY2d 171) the defendant had originally received an aggregate sentence of 45 years to life, including a sentence of 2-4 years on a count of criminal possession of stolen property. On retrial he was acquitted of a all counts other than the stolen property charge for which he was sentenced, as a persistent felon, to 25 years to life. This increase from 2-4 years to 25 years to life was held not to be presumptively vindictive.

The Young Court held that in determining whether the presumption of vindictiveness applies to a sentence imposed after a retrial,where a defendant receives a lesser over-all sentence following retrial, but a greater sentence on an individual count
the presumption arises only if the circumstances evince a reasonable likelihood that the greater sentence on the individual count was the result of vindictiveness (citations omitted). While trial courts in New York are required to impose discrete sentences for each individual count (see, CPL 380.20), we cannot ignore the reality that, in cases involving multiple counts, trial courts may view the individual sentences as part of an integrated whole. A trial court fashions its sentence on a “delicate balancing” of factors, including the defendant's background, criminal history and prospects for rehabilitation, in order to achieve a sentence that is appropriate both for the defendant and for the specific crimes of which the defendant was convicted(Citation omitted. Where, as here, a trial court adjusts the original sentence after retrial in order to reflect that balance, a presumption of vindictiveness will not arise.

Citing Young, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, in People v Rogers (2008 NY Slip Op 08827 [4th Dept 11/14/08], found that the presumption of vindictiveness applied under facts very similar to those in Young.

Following his first trial, Mr. Rogers was sentenced to a determinate term of imprisonment of 20 years on the robbery count and an indeterminate term of imprisonment of 20 years to life on the murder count, but he was sentenced to a determinate term of imprisonment of 25 years on the robbery count following the retrial. The Court held that
"The threshold issue in evaluating whether a resentence is vindictive is whether the resentence is more severe than that originally imposed" (People v Cahill, 46 AD3d 1455, 1456; see generally People v Young, 94 NY2d 171, 176-177, rearg denied 94 NY2d 876; People v Van Pelt, 76 NY2d 156, 159-160), and a determinate sentence of 25 years is of course more severe than one of 20 years. Other factors that give rise to a presumption of vindictiveness are that the court imposed a greater sentence following the retrial despite the absence of any new information concerning defendant (see Van Pelt, 76 NY2d at 161), and, although defendant was acquitted of the murder count, the court stated at sentencing that it "felt constrained to impose the sentence because a death was involved." We further conclude that "[t]he record is devoid of any objective information sufficient to rebut the presumption of vindictiveness that arose from the court's imposition of a sentence greater than that imposed after the initial conviction" (People v Jenkins, 38 AD3d 566, 567-568, lv denied 8 NY3d 986).

It is difficult to discern which facts distinguish Rogers from Young.